I hear this phrase sometimes:

"He's always sucking up to the boss"

If someone sucks up then he's a sucker, so why would he be a suck up?

Isn't someone who's always sucking up to somebody also a sucker?

The question is whether a "suck-up" (regardless of the meaning of the two words being completely different from each other) could be called a “sucker" instead.


2 Answers 2


The phrase suck up is a phrasal verb. Being a sucker is something quite different.

First, let’s establish what a suck up is:

suck up (phrasal verb) to adulate or flatter somebody excessively, generally to obtain some personal benefit or favour.

This really doesn’t have much to do with most of the nuances of the word sucker.

In English, we often use the -er suffix to turn a verb into a noun. For example, a teacher is one who teaches, a driver is one who drives, and a jogger is one who jogs. However, some words have the -er suffix, but the word can means something completely different. For example, this meaning is listed under sucker:

sucker (noun) one that sucks, especially an unweaned domestic animal.

However, when you hear someone say, “He is a sucker,” that’s generally referring to a different sense of the word:

sucker (noun) One who is easily deceived; a person who is gullible and easy to take advantage of

So, no, you can’t call a suck-up a sucker. A suck-up is a person who is trying to do nice things for their boss so they can win favor. A sucker is someone who will believe things that aren’t true.

  • 1
    As a footnote, we often close questions that are easily answerable with a dictionary. However, sometimes questions are only easily answerable with a dictionary when one can easily recognize a phrasal verb, and knows that the phrasal verb happens to be much different than the verb by itself. For example, there isn’t much difference between call and call up (as in, “He called his friend,” vs. “He called up his friend”), but there can be a world of difference between bring and bring up (as in, “He brought his child” vs. “He brought up his child”).
    – J.R.
    Mar 15, 2019 at 12:32

No. A sucker is someone who's an easy mark, credulous, easy to trick. A suck-up is someone who sucks up a lot. To explain further...

If you wanted to construct a noun in the same manner as sucker from the verb suck up, you could plausibly use sucker-up or suck-upper, but that would be a new coinage, not a term that's actually used. A person who sucks is a sucker; a person who sucks up is a suck-up. However, while a sucker can be a person who sucks, that isn't what we usually use that word for.

You have to understand the difference between the basic verb to suck and the phrasal verb to suck up. Sucking up rarely involves any literal sucking. It's an expression to refer to things like sycophancy. Trying to make someone in authority like you or favour you.

The one point of confusion you can end up with here is that while you can suck up to somebody, and if suck up has no object or complement or prepositional phrase indicating who or what it's done to then that can be taken as implicit. But you can also suck up a drink, say, through a straw. In that case, the verb is just to suck and the up is effectively an adverb.

So, that's suck up. What about sucker?

As I mentioned previously, it is true to say that someone who sucks (as in the physical action, rather than the insult) is a sucker, and it occasionally gets used that way, but usually it's used for something else. It's a descriptive noun that means a person who is easily tricked, an "easy mark", someone who is credulous and easy to deceive. It is, in a sense, a particularly specific sort of stupidity.

It also has use as a relatively meaningless term for something you find or have found annoying. That is a distinct meaning from the sense of credulity.

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    Had you looked up "sucker" in a dictionary, and if so, why were you thinking it could be used to mean the same as "suck-up"? That's what was missing.
    – SamBC
    Mar 14, 2019 at 15:19
  • 1
    I've edited this answer as merited by the expanded question.
    – SamBC
    Mar 15, 2019 at 13:20

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